WARNING: This is a long story so feel free to skip it.
I will have to go back a few days to when I was still in Islamabad.
One afternoon, following yet another embassy visit, I decided that I needed to get out of the smog that passes for air in Islamabad. A few people had suggested that I should ride up to Daman-e-Koh, a popular picnic spot and lookout (a bit like Castle Hill or Mt. Coot-tha) just a short ride from the NCG. It was a pleasant ride to the top where there was a large carpark, a small foodstall and plenty of tables for the locals to sit and enjoy the view of the grey blanket that smothers Islamabad.
It was pleasantly cool with a slight breeze gently pushing the empty chip packets across the grass. I parked the bike and, as I was peeling off my riding gear, a gentleman about my own age in the car parked beside me commented that he liked my bike and asked “from where are you coming?”. This conversation is now almost mandatory whenever I stop anywhere. After some more idle chit-chat I took my leave, thought nothing more of it and walked over to the foodstall for a luke-warm Pepsi and a packet of stale, masala-flavoured chips. I sat and tried to enjoy my not-so-high tea in the relative quiet of the picnic area where I daydreamed for a while. Eventually I emerged from my reverie and wandered back to the bike where the same gentleman was still standing looking at the bike. After a bit more in-depth conversation, he and his female companion invited me out for dinner. Initially, I was a bit wary but after further conversation I decided that they were genuine people. Mobarik gave me his card and told me he was a journalist and his companion, Asiya, worked in the field of women’s and community health. They offered to pick me up from the NCG at 8pm.
Back at the guest house I did a quick bit of internet research and Facebook stalking and found that Mobarik was indeed a journalist – in fact a highly regarded journalist for “The International News” – the major English language newspaper in Pakistan. Any reservations I may have had were allayed and, promptly at 8pm, Mobarik and Asiya arrived to pick me up. Surprisingly, Asiya had brought two other younger female relatives, Sumaira and Arooj, along as well. Mobarik and Asiya has chosen Habibi’s restaurant in F8 Markaz for dinner. In due course, I was to find out that Habibi’s was one of the more expensive restaurants in Islamabad.
The restaurant served traditional Arabic, not Pakistani, food including deep-fried whole quails – very crunchy! During the meal Mobarik, Asiya and I discussed many topics and toward the end of the meal Mobarik asked if he could write a short article about me for his newspaper. Initially I was somewhat taken aback, failing to see how he could make anything newsworthy out of our dinner conversation. I queried him about what “angle” he was going to take and eventually agreed. Mobarik asked me to email him some of the photos that we had taken at Daman-e-Koh and said that he would put a story together for the “City News” section of the Sunday edition of “The International “Times”.
Sunday was a few days away so, next day, I returned to the task at hand of getting the last visa for Tajikistan. Saturday was the daytrip to Taxila and the “story” was pushed to the back of my mind.
Come Sunday morning I asked Munir if the paper had arrived yet. It hadn’t but Munir sent one of the “boys” to go and get it. When Imran returned with the paper I opened it to the “City News” section with a degree of anticipation. Nothing! I have to admit to being a tad disappointed. I scanned the adjoining pages to see if I had been relegated to the classified ads or public notices page. Nope! I resigned myself to the fact that the Editor had probaly binned the story on the grounds that it held no public interest. I couldn’t argue with that!
Tant pis! I muttered to myself and proceeded to get on with my journey. The rest of Sunday was spent playing tourist and Monday morning I left the NCG for Murree for an intended 2-3 night stay. For reasons that appear in a previous blog, I cut short my stay in Murree and decided to head for Abbottabad for the necessary petrol and cash.
In Abbottabad, I began the search for a PSO (Pakistan State Oil) servo or pump as they are called. As the bike crawled along the congested main street in lunchtime traffic the first pump had a queue of cars and bikes stretching out onto the street in search of the precious petrol. Hating queues, I assumed there would be another pump up the road and rode past the PSO. Sure enough, about a kilometre up the road was a Shell pump without a queue. It was also without petrol! Back out into the tangled traffic in search of another pump. Kilometre after kilometre in traffic that a glacier could overtake, I found myself on the northern outskirts of Abbottabad. Still no pump.
What to do?
I certainly didn’t NEED petrol. I had barely done 100km since leaving Islamabad and Mansehra was only 30km away. But I wanted to get more cash as a back-up in case the ATMs further north wouldn’t accept foreign card like the ones in Murree.
So I pulled a U-ie in the first available sq. cm. of traffic space and headed the 5-6km back into anarchy of Abbottabad traffic. Back past the Shell pump with no petrol (shades of Slim Dusty’s “Pub with no beer”). Further back past the PSO on the opposite side of the road. As this was the main north/south highway there was a 30cm-high median strip to discourage the worst of the lane-jumpers, so there were limited opportunities to turn around. Back to the main intersection where I was able to do another U-ie and head back north again. As I got back to the PSO, miraculously, most of the queue had disappeared AND they still had petrol.
I pulled into the pump and waited among the little 70cc tiddlers – my big yellow BMW almost Brobdingnagian in comparison. Eventually my turn came and the tank was topped up to overflowing as is the normal custom. I pushed my bike away from the bowser and tried to wipe off some of the spilt petrol.
As I was doing so a young guy (whose name I found out later was Ahmed) came out of the office and walked over to talk to me. Given the events of the last 45 min. just to get petrol, I wasn’t feeling overly social. Mansehra was looking like a pretty good option. But, I am a guest in a foreign country so I always try to be friendly and polite.
Ahmed, waving a newspaper in my direction: “I’ve just been reading about you in the paper!” Ahmed spoke excellent English – much better than my Urdu!
Me, momentarily dumbstruck: “Sorry?”
Ahmed, still waving the newspaper at me: “I was just reading about you in the paper this very minute and I looked up and there was your bike in my petrol station.”
Me, partially regathering my wits: “Really?”
Ahmed showed me the newspaper. Sure enough, there was Mobarik’s story about my travels in Pakistan, complete with one of the photos taken at Daman-e-Koh. When the story didn’t appear in Sunday’s paper I had completely forgotten about it and simply continued on my merry way through Pakistan. Now, two days later, in a city that I wasn’t going to visit, on day when I shouldn’t have been there anyway, I just happen to pull into the very pump at the precise moment when the manager’s son is reading Mobarik’s story in the paper.
What are the odds?
And so a simple fuel stop changed my plans again. Ahmed introduced me to his father, Asif, and they proceeded to adopt me. I told Ahmed that I needed to find a Standard Chartered ATM and he told me he was just about to go there to talk to the manager. It was only about 50m away but somehow I had missed it while lapping the main street of Abbottabad in the heavy traffic. Replete with fuel and money, I considered my next move. Should I stay or should I go? The decision was effectively made for me when Ahmed offered to arrange a room at a hotel just one minute from his father’s PSO.
And so I decided to stay in Abbottabad for a few nights where I enjoyed the immense hospitality of Ahmed and his entire family – all because of Mobarik’s story.
And that is the story behind the story.